It was Buddha’s birthday, a subdued holiday introduced into Hong Kong after handover in 1997. Monks in countries throughout Asia mark the day by ceremonially washing their Buddha images. With that thought in mind, it occurred to me that perhaps an interesting place to see the ceremony would be at Po Lin Monastery on Lantau, island, a short distance from the main island of Hong Kong, the airport and Kowloon. As it is reputed to be the world’s largest uncovered seated Buddha, would they need to build scaffolding or use a pressure hose to accomplish the task? The answer to that may have to wait for another year.
Instead of braving crowds and seasonally inclement weather (the typhoon season is upon us) we booked lunch at a restaurant in the increasingly interesting Star Street area of Hong Kong, within walking distance of a cluster of upmarket hotels including the Conrad, Grand Hyatt and Great, one of the local supermarkets selling a reasonable range of g-f products.
It was a find. As someone who doesn’t need any tests to know I carry the perfectionist gene it was clear, even before the dishes we ordered were served, that the chef is similarly blessed (or cursed). The amuse bouche was an inspired still life installation, presented in three parts. The first was a single quails egg poised on a white ceramic spoon nestled in a box of straw and wire. The photo doesn’t do it justice, and it can’t convey the surprise and interest evoked. The element of surprise continued when I found the egg had been sprinkled with mild Japanese chilli powder and briefly caramelized to produce an unexpected gentle crunch.
The second part of the amuse bouche – the chef clearly takes the French term literally – was a cream coloured ball, the size of a chocolate truffle, coated with finely shredded coconut and presented on a quartered coconut shell, itself filled with coconut. The way it looked evoked a Caribbean beach, an impression intensified when I found that inside it contained the tropical drink pina colada. Afterwards the waiter explained that it was necessary to freeze the pina colada in ball shapes and then to coat them with cocoa butter before rolling them in the coconut. It clearly took time, effort and admirable inspiration to create this.
Timing is all. They have calculated that there are an optimum number of minutes from getting the ‘balls on the beach’ from the freezer to the table: time has even been factored in between them being served and eaten. Difficult when three creations are served. What order will people choose to eat them in, and will this affect the outcome? There was no reproach at all from the staff when I whisked out my phone to capture an image of it, but clearly the time taken to do that, especially if I had chosen to eat it last, might have ruined all their work. If that isn’t culinary roulette I am not sure what is. Before I popped it in my mouth, despite having been told beforehand that one of the ingredients was pina colada I didn’t expect the gush of liquid. A second serious smile was raised.
You might think of watermelon as a simple ingredient, a thirst quencher easily found on street corners or cut into green edged smiles in café’s throughout Asia. What the chef did with it here was inspired, not least in the impact he created from such simplicity. He set two cubes of luscious deep pink watermelon in a little earthenware plant pot filled with crushed ice. Another signifier of the attention to detail, and a second Japanese touch, was the narrow bamboo skewer knotted at the end. He had poured a little sangria over the top of the watermelon cubes and topped that with a sliver of mint. Not only was the taste an unexpectedly appropriate combination, but the hint of mint at the end was a touch of genius. And this was even before the dishes we had chosen had arrived…..
It is a credit to this restaurant that I haven’t mentioned gluten-free restaurant anxiety until now. Perhaps that is because in this restaurant I felt entirely confident that everything was made from scratch. After all, if this chef eschewed naff machine-made cocktail sticks in favour of hand-crafted skewers, he knows the provenance of every one of his ingredients.
My starter (although as you will have gathered, I felt this wonderful meal ‘started’ quite a while ago). I chose white asparagus in warm mayonnaise. It was well executed although the asparagus was slightly bitter. Next time, and if I am lucky there will be a next time, I would choose the chilled Spanish almond soup, Ajo Blanco with burnt grapes that my partner ordered. It isn’t something I’ve ever made so I feel slightly guilty to have maligned Spanish cuisine in a recent conversation – after all my strongest memories of Spain are as a student backpacker where budget and choices were very limited. Delia online has a recipe for Ajo Blanco that I might try although, from a quick read of the ingredients, what it doesn’t have is the chopped singed grapes mixed with sherry that the chef from The Principal spooned into the centre. This had the effect of altering the taste, the effect of the sherry becoming more pronounced as it was eaten.
For the main course, I chose beef with onions and Brussel sprouts, a serving which was finely judged in size and cooked to perfection. I would much rather eat a smaller plate of truly delicious food than be overfaced by a mountain of indifference.
Dessert envy is a familiar experience for the gluten intolerant but here, only one of the three choices was out of bounds. I chose the Baba, a mix of caramelized banana, and chocolate ice cream and sauces. This followed swiftly with a double expresso was a perfect and quite memorable way to celebrate Buddha’s birthday.
If you have read this far you might be intrigued to know the derivation of the name of the restaurant. Does The Principal refer to the loan presumably needed to pay the rent, or obliquely refer to the number of bankers who live in this city. Unexpectedly, and far more interesting historically, it turns out that it is named in honour of the head of the school on whose site this understated modern restaurant sits.
Perhaps the grey books piled outside gave a clue but within the restaurant I could see no obvious physical indication of the bustling classrooms that once would have been there. Instead of dark ink stained desks and chalkboards, the impression is unassertively modern in its use of pale wood and marble with unusual, though quite effective, copper lighting. On reflection though, perhaps the spirit of the lady principal lives on through the years of training and constant effort required to be able to produce food of this quality: as far as this reviewer is concerned they should be top of the class. The writers of the 2013 Hong Kong and Macau Michelin Guide also thought so too, last year awarding The Principal a well–deserved Michelin star.
The website: http://www.theprincipal.com.hk/ allows you to book a table online and have instant confirmation. For the gluten-intolerant, or someone with food allergies, there is also a comment box which allows you to note this. In case it helps, I wrote: ‘One of the guests needs to eat gluten-free for medical reasons.” This was clearly noted by the staff, communicated to the chef before our arrival and absolutely no fuss at all was made of it while we were there. Exemplary really.
The Principal, 9 Star Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong -Tel: (852) 2563 3444 www.theprincipal.com.hk